Jim Brown, new Ayn Rand Institute CEO: ‘Culture and society out there can look pretty irrational. Just look at the last election’


The Orange County-based Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), founded in Los Angeles in 1985 to advance the writer’s philosophy of objectivism, recently announced that Jim Brown has taken over as the new chief executive officer. 

The nonprofit organization, which moved to Irvine in June 2002, distributes free books to teachers, sponsors cash-prize essay contests for high school and college students and offers free online courses for adults. It was founded by longtime Orange County resident Leonard Peikoff, the author and philosophy professor whom Rand, who died in 1982, chose as her heir.

The Russian-born writer escaped Soviet Russia, came to America and lived in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City, writing screenplays, a Broadway play and nonfiction works on epistemology — which to Rand was the study of how humans acquire knowledge — art and ethics. Her best-known novels include “Anthem,” “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” — which depicts a dystopian U.S. where thinkers and creators go on strike when confronted with aggressive new regulations.

“Atlas Shrugged” was not critically well received when it was published in 1957, but it became a best-seller and later a rallying cry for the tea party movement.

In 1962, Rand was asked to write a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times. Her first was a brief introduction to objectivism. She described it as objective reality in metaphysics, reason in epistemology, self-interest in ethics and capitalism in politics.

In a 1959 TV interview, according to BBC News, Rand had offered this explanation: Man’s “highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness and that he must not force other people, nor accept their right to force him, that each man must live as an end in himself and follow his own rational self-interest.”

A photograph of the thinker and novelist Ayn Rand, taken during a TV interview in the 1960s, hung in the offices of the Ayn Rand Institute's national headquarters in Irvine in this 2002 photo.

A photograph of the thinker and novelist Ayn Rand, taken during a TV interview in the 1960s, hung in the offices of the Ayn Rand Institute’s national headquarters in Irvine in this 2002 photo.

(Don Tormey / Los Angeles Times)

In 1985, Michael S. Berliner, then the executive director of the Ayn Rand Institute, attempted to clarify what he considered a misconception that Rand’s philosophy gave rise to or was somehow associated with libertarianism. He explained that she “thoroughly repudiated libertarianism and the anarchism that dominates that movement.”

“Objectivism stands for reason, rational self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism, including absolute individual rights,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times. “It is a systematic, integrated view of existence, in direct contrast to the anti-philosophic, subjectivist approach of the libertarians. Having no interest in fundamental principles, libertarians make common cause with anyone, including terrorists, opposed to government, especially the United States government,” he wrote.

With the naming of Brown, the institute has deviated from its two previous leaders, who were academics. In a statement, ARI referred to his 30-year finance career and military service in the U.S. Air Force.

Brown earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the United States Air Force Academy and an MBA from Harvard Business School, it said.

The husband, father and retired chartered financial analyst was interviewed at his new office in Irvine.

Below are excerpts from the conversation.

Weekend: Do you have a favorite lecture by Ayn Rand?

Brown: I do because it’s the only one I ever saw in person. In 1977, I saw [Ayn Rand deliver her talk] “Global Balkanization” at the Ford Hall Forum [a lecture series at Northeastern University from 1961 to 1998] in Boston. I walked in and [former Federal Reserve Board Chairman] Alan Greenspan was sitting on the floor playing chess with someone in the foyer. By then, he’d been on President Ford’s Council of Economic Advisers, so even then he was famous. Of course, when Ayn Rand came up — this little, tiny woman with this heavy Russian accent — it was amazing. I’ve reread that talk a few times. This is the essay in which she talked about classifying people according to ethnicity or arbitrary racial classifications, and she systematically demolishes it as any type of rational thinking at all. The Q and A was interesting too. She was so clear on what she wanted to say in answer to every question.

Weekend: How can the Ayn Rand Institute improve?

Brown: We have to get the ideas out and we have challenges in that area — including resistance in the culture. I don’t have to remind anyone reading this that the culture and society out there can look pretty irrational. Just look at the last election. But that’s not the biggest obstacle to our success. I think the biggest obstacle to our success is right here in the objectivist movement. Sometimes, we can’t get out of our own way.

So the room for improvement is what we can change about our movement. How can we make the movement more effective? I really believe strongly — and we are starting to develop this idea here at the Institute — that we need to develop a sense of community among objectivists. And that can only begin here at the Ayn Rand Institute. If we are going to try to help foster and develop this, it has to start here. We want to increase awareness, understanding and acceptance of the philosophy of Ayn Rand, objectivism. That is what we are about. So we have to give people something of value, probably over a period of years, before we can expect to have earned their support. Just like Say’s Law in economics, you have to produce before you can profit. That is what I think we’re doing: We’re investing in people’s minds, persuasion and in the influence of a philosophy that’s a gift to the world in my view. When we have done that, we can hope and expect that they will support us because we will have earned it.

Weekend: What’s your favorite work by Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff?

Brown: For comprehensive understanding, “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.” For sheer pleasure, [the audio lecture course] “Eight Great Plays.” I love it. For immediate impact on my life, his objective communication course is excellent. I still use “motivation, structure, concretize, delimit” everywhere I go.

Weekend: Which Ayn Rand book is the most effective in reaching the reader?

Brown: “Atlas Shrugged.” There are a lot of ways you could measure what’s most effective, but the way I interpret your question is which Ayn Rand book has the biggest impact on the maximum number of people, and it has to be “Atlas Shrugged.” Everyone’s talking about “Atlas Shrugged.”

Weekend: Businessmen are depicted as villains — not just as heroes — in “Atlas Shrugged.” Can you name three businessmen who are like villains in today’s mixed economy?

Brown: If you look at [Ayn Rand’s] “The Inexplicable Personal Alchemy,” she talks about the money-making mentality and the moneymaker versus the money appropriator. [ Rand] also states in there, pretty explicitly, that there’s often a combination and a mix. That’s the way I think of most of today’s businessmen. It’s difficult to evaluate in today’s mixed economy who’s the moneymaker and who’s the money appropriator. For example, I’d put [GE Chairman and CEO] Jeffrey Immelt as more of an appropriator, though he’s undoubtedly a talented businessman. I’d put [Secretary of State and former ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO] Rex Tillerson along the lines of the moneymaker, besides obvious ones such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and probably Jeff Bezos.

Weekend: Is there a single quality that you acquired during your military aviation career that uniquely applies to your new role as CEO?

Brown: The first thing that comes to mind is an appreciation for working cooperatively and collaborating with people. If you have a big air crew, you can’t just be the boss and make commands. You’re in charge and you can’t just tell people what to do if you want to get some new programs done or you’re trying to move classes through administration to train 500 pilots a year. You have to give people responsibilities, have them commit to their responsibilities and own it. If you can get people to own their responsibilities, then reporting to you is a cooperative venture, not a command-and-control venture. I really learned that in spades as a flight commander and as a squadron commander when I was training pilots.

Weekend: What is the Ayn Rand Institute’s greatest success in its 32-year mission to advance objectivism?

Brown: Getting Ayn Rand’s books — specifically her fiction — into people’s hands.

Weekend: How do you guard your leadership against sycophants in favor of people who might be more willing to tell you — and ARI — what they think you might not want to hear?

Brown: That’s a very good question. It’s a reason for collaboration. You only get sycophants if you’re an authoritarian, because you can’t spot them if you’re an authoritarian.

Weekend: What is the most misunderstood part of objectivism?

Brown: I think it’s this notion of objectivists as righteously selfish people who are mean-spirited, unconcerned and unloving. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Weekend: How will you know you’ve succeeded at ARI?

Brown: The first successful milestone that I would really take pride in is when people say that the Ayn Rand Institute is a wonderful place to work.